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April 24, 2013It's the streaks that ultimately hold Kentucky football back.
It's been 26 years since UK has beaten Florida. It's been 29 years since the Wildcats won more than half of their conference games. But some of those streaks have extended even after players leave the program.
Kentucky hasn't had a single offensive lineman picked in the NFL draft in 20 years.
"I would imagine over the last 20 years they would have had somebody who was good enough to be drafted," said Todd Perry, an offensive guard drafted from Kentucky in 1993.
But that hasn't been the case. By contrast, the 13 other SEC teams have all had at least one offensive lineman chosen since 2008.
Kentucky's long drought is expected to finally end sometime later this week, when guard Larry Warford is chosen in the 2013 NFL Draft. He's considered one of the top five guards by nearly every scouting service. He expects to go somewhere between the second and fourth rounds.
"I just want to represent my university," Warford said. "It's a great place. I've had so much fun and gotten a lot out of it. To represent UK in the draft, it means everything to me. It's something I've really wanted to do and take a lot of pride in."
There are also the streaks that Kentucky has ended in recent years, with Warford on the field. UK closed out a 26-year losing streak to Tennessee in 2011. The Wildcats finally beat Steve Spurrier in 2010 after losing 17 straight against the coach.
Warford is about to add another streak to that list.
'HOW HARD IT IS'
Perry didn't even know it had been 20 years since UK had an offensive lineman chosen until a friend mentioned it to him last fall. When he was picked in the fourth round of the 1993 NFL Draft, Warford was still in kindergarten in Bremerton, Washington.
He actually wasn't the last UK offensive lineman drafted - that distinction belongs to Chuck Bradley, who was picked in the sixth round the same year. Bradley only played one game in his NFL career. Perry had a long career, though, starting 144 games over 11 seasons.
Kentucky has had some representation in the NFL trenches in that time, but only sparingly. Garry Williams earned a spot on the Panthers roster in 2009 as an undrafted free agent. He's been with the team ever since and played in all 16 games for Carolina last season. Center Omar Smith went undrafted in 2001, but eventually made the New York Giants as a reserve in 2002 and 2003.
"It just goes to show you how hard it is to get to that level," offensive line coach John Schlarman said. "One, you have to get the opportunity. Two, you have to stick."
Schlarman was an All-SEC pick when he played at Kentucky in 1997, but never played in the NFL. He remained close to the program, serving as a graduate assistant in 2000-02 and coaching high school football in the state for four years.
Perry thinks playing at Kentucky helped prepare him for the NFL, because he became accustomed to the speed of the game. He saw bigger, stronger players struggle to make the transition to professional football as he established himself as a starter.
"I don't think it matters what school you go to in the SEC," Perry said. "You're playing against SEC caliber competition."
FACTORS IN PLAY
There's no one reason why a program goes 20 years without having an offensive lineman picked. It's the result of a multitude of factors. Style of play and development weigh a factor, but the problems can begin even earlier than that.
The most difficult thing can just be finding the right players.
"Offensive line is a position where you look at the bodies and see how big those guys are and there just aren't a lot of those guys," Schlarman said. "At the same time there's a lot of demand for offensive line guys, but guys that size aren't always in supply."
Even when coaches can find those players, they don't always pan out. Projecting how a high school offensive lineman will transition to college and beyond hinges on evaluating the frame of a 17-year-old. Often, it's guesswork.
Perry arrived at Kentucky at 6-foot-4, 225 pounds before growing into 6-foot-5 and 290 pounds. Several high school players now are larger when they arrive at school, but trying to determine how a player's skills will be change over four years is still difficult to do.
Kentucky hasn't been known as fertile recruiting ground for offensive linemen. Warford moved to the state after growing up on the west coast. High school football in Kentucky has improved since 1993, but still doesn't produce the same number of players as many other states.
Schlarman said UK will mine Ohio heavily for offensive line prospects. Perry, now coaching the offensive line at Milton High School in Alpharetta, Georgia, had three linemen sign with BCS programs this year.
"The level of competition you play at in high school is huge," Perry said. "If you're playing at a lower level, you better be extremely dominant."
THE NEXT 20 YEARS
Schlarman's hope is that it won't take 20 years for Kentucky to have another offensive lineman drafted. He's seen firsthand what a drought like that can do to a program.
"That's a pretty telling statistic right there," Schlarman said. "Hopefully we'll change that and that'll change our success on the field."
He was on the road recruiting this week, looking for players who could help change the trend.
Warford thinks it could happen sooner than some might expect. UK started a sophomore and a redshirt freshman on the offensive line this season, and he liked what he saw from those younger players.
"Darrian Miller is going to be a really good player," Warford said. "Zach Myers and Zach West, I saw those guys play. They're going to be good ones. I'm hoping that I won't be the last one for a while, and I believe they can change that for sure."
Kentucky went 1-10 the season after Perry and Bradley left. The Wildcats have gone 90-135 in that time.
Just like there are many reasons why a program goes 20 years without a lineman being drafted, there are many reasons why the Wildcats have struggled so much in that time. Schlarman believes it all starts up front.
Warford will end a streak this week, but that's just the beginning of what it will take to help rebuild the program. There's more to do than finding NFL-caliber offensive linemen, but it's a start.
"I wouldn't say it's the only reason, but there's an influence in that," Perry said. "It's a factor. If you don't get a lineman drafted in 20 years, you're not getting the type of guys you want to compete in the SEC."